(originally posted on wacotrib.com and in the Waco Tribune Herald, reposted with permission)
By Regina Dennis
Tribune-Herald staff writer
South Waco Elementary School third-grader Muneca Araujo sipped chocolate milk after devouring a cereal bar at her desk. But she left her banana untouched.
“Bananas are yucky,” said Muneca, 8, as four other classmates in her cluster of desks peeled into the fruit.
The students ate sack breakfasts provided by the school while teacher Jennifer Traudt read the class a novel, pausing to ask comprehension and vocabulary questions.
Serving breakfast to all students in the classroom — instead of before school and only to some of the students — soon will be part of the norm for a group of local schools.
The Waco and Connally school districts are trying out the Breakfast in the Classroom initiative this year as a way to ensure all kids start the day with a balanced breakfast.
“When I’m hungry, I struggle through the morning on an empty stomach, so this is one way of making sure our students have some sort of meal before they settle into doing schoolwork,” South Waco Principal Jim Patton said. “Even kids who come late to school, they have a breakfast waiting on them when they get here.”
South Waco, North Waco, Dean Highland and Crestview elementaries, along with Alta Vista Montessori School, are testing different models of serving breakfast to the kids.
Connally’s primary and elementary campuses are trying the program before deciding whether to add it for the middle and high school.
Jeremy Everett, director of the nonprofit Texas Hunger Initiative at Baylor University’s School of Social Work, said more than 80 percent of children across the state qualify for free or reduced-price meals at school but only 57 percent participate in the breakfast program.
The Texas Hunger Initiative has been working with 10 districts across the state, including Waco and Connally, to encourage and assist them in rolling out the Breakfast in the Classroom program.
“Right now, we know that a lot of our kids aren’t eating breakfast, or breakfast might consist of a bag of Hot Cheetos and a Big Red,” Everett said. “So we know that A, that’s not going to sustain them through to lunchtime, and B, that’s unhealthy for them.”
All of the targeted districts have a student population in which at least 70 percent of the students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch but have low participation in the breakfast program.
Waco ISD has a free, before-school universal breakfast program for all students, whether or not they qualify for free- or reduced meals.
But the district gets only 40 to 50 percent participation at breakfast, said food service manager Scott Anglesey.
One reason for the low participation is some children get to school late.
Patton said when he served as principal of North Waco Elementary, the front office stocked graham crackers and cereal bars for students who came late to make sure they had something to eat before diving into schoolwork.
Some children also may feel some stigma with eating a free breakfast meal before school and opt to avoid shame.
Students are quickly warming up to the new program. In Traudt’s class, Jacob Ramirez, 8, said he likes eating in the classroom better because it’s much quieter than the noisy cafeteria, while 9-year-old Ty’quedra Washington said the breakfast improves her concentration so she doesn’t fall asleep or get tired.
Yadira Talavera, 8, said she didn’t always get to eat breakfast in the cafeteria because it’s hectic getting ready for school at home.
She has a 7-year-old brother and a 4-year-old sister, plus a third sibling on the way. Sometimes, her mother gets kolaches for the family on the way to school.
“We’ve had a lot of different things (in the sack breakfasts),” Yadira said, naming yogurt, cereal bars and a hash brown mixture with eggs and bacon. “My favorite was the breakfast burritos because they have sausage in them.”
For the most part, the schools are able to expand breakfast to all students without eating into their budgets.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture pays school districts $1.51 per meal for each child who qualifies for free meal service, $1.21 for children under the reduced-meals program, and 27 cents for students who pay for their own meals.
Anglesey said costs $1.38 to prepare one breakfast meal, so as more children eat breakfast, a surplus is created from the free meal reimbursements that the districts use to pay for meals to nonqualifying students and offer healthier food options.
Still, the schools face some costs in packaging the breakfasts.
Also, Dairy MAX, a nonprofit group affiliated with the National Dairy Council, is giving grants to each participating school to help cover expenses of transporting food to the classrooms.
Eventually, the Texas Hunger Initiative hopes to push more districts across the state to move to the Breakfast in the Classroom model.
The nonprofit group also is looking at models for afternoon meals program that could be implemented, giving all students a chance to receive a third free meal during the school week.
“This exists to try to build healthier kids,” Everett said. “You need a healthy, educated workforce. If our kids aren’t eating, then they’re not going to be educated and they’re not going to be healthy, because they can’t remember what they learned (without proper nourishment).”